January 28, 2019

Most of us enjoy listening to our favorite tunes while in the car or relaxing at home—but could music serve an even deeper purpose in our lives?

In September, Larry Sherman, PhD, a professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), joined OHSU research scientists Marc Freeman, PhD, and Erick Gallun, PhD, for an on-stage discussion about research exploring the importance of music for brain development and healing. The researchers were accompanied by internationally-renowned opera singer Renée Fleming.

Sherman, who has performed a series of talks explaining how listening and practicing music can influence brain development and delay cognitive decline in aging, said the soaring feeling of inspiration when we’re playing, singing or listening to music is rooted in brain chemistry. He cited research which has shown magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals a spike in endorphins and dopamine among people exposed to music, which generates a feeling of belonging and of community.

Fleming added that one of the latest iterations of music therapy involves forming drumming circles for people struggling with addiction. Gallun suggested this technique may be soothing because the drumming echoes a rhythm from the earliest possible point of the brain’s development.

“When you’re in the womb, there are only a few things you can hear,” Gallun said. “One is your mother’s heartbeat.”

Fleming recently spent two hours in an MRI machine as part of a Sound Health initiative supported by National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the specific neural circuits involved in the interaction between music and the brain. She believes that music can have a therapeutic effect, especially for underserved youth populations struggling with social and mental health issues.

“Music can really make a difference in their lives,” she said.

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